Every spring athletic program was touched by the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but perhaps few felt the sting worse than the St. Paul baseball team.
Coming off the program's first state playoff victory in school history in 2019, the Buckaroos were eager to take a senior-laden team into 2020 with the expectation of building off the previous season's success and making a deep run in the state playoffs.
"Last year we had, I think 11 seniors, we were really dominant with the senior class," St. Paul head coach Dwayne Nowlin said. "They were devastated."
The loss of the 2020 season had somewhat of a domino effect on the team. Not only was the team's playoff aspirations dashed, but due to the heavy reliance on its senior players meant the class below had little varsity experience. With the lost season, that meant the players coming back for 2021 were largely inexperienced up and down the roster.
"There's one junior and one senior that's played any varsity. Everybody else is brand new," Nowlin said. "All these freshmen and sophomores – this is their first high school experience, because they didn't play last year."
With a team that is largely starting from scratch, one could expect the Buckaroos to go through a rebuilding year to get the team's new players accustomed to the rigors of varsity play. Instead, St. Paul has put together a 4-1 start to the season, winning its first four games of the season before falling 14-2 to a seasoned Kennedy program that is unbeaten and looks to be among the best programs in the state at the 2A/1A level.
"Kennedy is a little intimidating because they are a very good program with a great coach," Nowlin said. "I was really happy with my sophomore pitcher Warren Rose, and Payson (Weise), they came in and they just gotta have help behind him."
Most of the Trojans' runs came courtesy of the Buckaroos, who posted 11 errors on the day in an aberration from what Nowlin has seen in the previous four contests.
"I think that's a learning experience or these young kids," Nowlin said. "Our first four games the other teams hit the ball, but we just made plays. We didn't have the errors we did tonight."
The St. Paul coach attributes much of the success this season to the enthusiasm for the program among the players, fans and coaches. Certainly a year off from play has helped build excitement for the return of baseball, but the team has continued to see strong participation since the varsity program returned to St. Paul nearly a decade ago.
"I've got 24 kids out for baseball," Nowlin said. "A lot of these bigger schools don't even have that, so it's really nice."
This year's Buckaroos may be lacking in varsity experience, but St. Paul's baseball program has allowed for the incoming juniors and senior that missed last year to step into starting roles with relative ease thanks to the team's strong JV program. And with this year's JV team sporting a 3-1 record of their own, there are plenty of Bucks waiting in the wings to build on the success of the 2019 season.
"We've got a huge sophomore class," Nowlin said. "I say practice starts at 3 and these kids are out here at 2:15 wanting to go. These kids just love playing baseball ... and think we're going to be fine, we just got to keep them motivated to come out here and play."
With no state playoffs to compete for this season, that means keeping the team excited to play game-to-game while keeping an eye on developing for the future. Without a playoff schedule at the end of the season, the Bucks are free to schedule games with teams in their immediate area, making for an easier travel schedule this year. Outside of a trip to Culver in May, all of the team's games are in the Willamette Valley against nearby programs such as Western Christian, Sheridan and Salem Academy.
"They're so young, and this is a great teaching year to just keep playing, having fun," Nowlin said. "On Saturdays we're having meals and hanging out and just trying to keep these young kids motivated.
"This is a fun, learning year, but it's always fun when you win," Nowlin said. "They're a little down tonight, and this was a good learning experience playing a good team."
The St. Paul Buckaroos have opened the season with a 4-1 record with a new cast of players in this year's program.
April 14 - St. Paul 12, Santiam 7
April 16 - St. Paul 14, Santiam 1
April 19 - St. Paul 10, Salem Academy 9
April 21 - St. Paul 10, Salem Academy 9
April 23 - Kennedy 14, St. Paul 2
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.